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Flash Review, 5-11: Mac Attack
Assessing Sir Kenneth

Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano in Kenneth MacMillan's "Concerto." Johan Persson photo courtesy Royal Ballet.

By Victoria Watts
Copyright 2010 Victoria Watts

LONDON -- It will be of no small consequence to me when MacMillan year comes to an end. It's not that I dislike the whole of Kenneth MacMillan's oeuvre; it is just that there are so many other interesting choreographers whose work I am not seeing while the Royal Ballet pushes this celebration of what would have been the man's 80th birthday and I am tiring of the supposed dark psychological depths of his dances. Yet if "The Judas Tree," seen on the MacMillan triple bill of April 14 at the Royal Opera House, strikes me as one of the worst ballets ever crafted due to the incoherence of its plot and character development, the heavy-handed yet somehow ill-placed Christian allegory, and its almost comic sexual imagery. I was happy to be introduced to an earlier neo-classical work, "Concerto," and to see a live performance of crowd-pleasing "Elite Syncopations" which I had previously only encountered through the Benesh Movement Notation score.

Choreographed in 1966 at the beginning of MacMillan's tenure as director of the Deutshce Oper Ballet in Berlin, "Concerto" is fresh, occasionally humorous, and full of technically challenging variations and enchainements that allow the dancers to display their virtuosity (Steven McRae, Sarah Lamb) or leave them looking exposed and under prepared (Yuhui Choe, Helen Crawford). To be fair to Crawford, she was stepping in to replace an ailing Lauren Cuthbertson, and her performance seemed derailed by nerves. The sprightly verve the extended solo demanded never emerged from behind her look of intense concentration. My greatest pleasure in watching this dance came from the work of the corps de ballet who flock, march, and stalk in kaleidoscopic patterns, exquisitely counterpointing the principals. During the Third Movement they sweep arms in brittle circles, execute staccato switches of facing, punch out clockwork-isolated epaulement, and jig up and down like mechanical jockeys.

"The Judas Tree" is the last ballet MacMillan made, premiering in March 1992 before his death in October of that same year. A lot has been written about this piece and its narrative of gang rape, betrayal, murder and suicide set on a construction site in modern London, the tower of Canary Wharf blinking familiarly on the backdrop. Previous viewings of this work have frustrated and angered me: why do they carry the woman on under a sheet at the beginning of the ballet? Where did the bare-chested builders find her anyway? Why is she wearing a strapless colorful leotard when the men are costumed more naturalistically? Why does she make no attempt to run away? Why does the foreman's friend hide under a sheet with her? Why do the builders kill the foreman's friend once he has been wrongly pointed out as the murderer, when the workmen themselves are all guilty of her rape? And why, towards the end, do the workmen re-enter wearing yellow hard hats and yellow waterproof coats? Did it suddenly get colder? It's absurd, as is the sub-West Side Story jazz ballet choreography these men are given to perform. On this viewing though, I decided to relinquish any attachment to logical narrative and convincing character development and instead gave in to its comic possibilities. Everything MacMillan puts forth in this ballet is somehow adjacent to meaning, somehow so radically incoherent that it might even be thought of as a satire on narrative expression in ballet.

Marianela Nunez in the Royal Ballet's production of Kenneth MacMillan's "Elite Syncopations." Johan Persson photo courtesy Royal Ballet.

Set to an array of ragtime tunes, played by a band sitting upstage, conjuring a fantastical nightclub scene, "Elite Syncopations" is a jolly ballet. The dancers are clad in cutesy colorfully patterned unitards that give a 1970s spin to 1920s fashion. Marienela Nunez was chic and flirtatious in the Stop Time Rag, and Ricardo Cervera was the best I'd ever seen him, vivacious and musical in The Golden Hours pas de deux with Iohna Loots. The Alaskan Rag, originally choreographed for diminutive, theatrical Wayne Sleep and elegant, far taller Vergie Derman is a concoction of old school slapstick and Chaplinesque gags about a short man dancing with his face buried in the chest of a taller woman. Laura McCulloch had an eager comedic quality in her dancing. Her interpretation was all the more satisfying for the poignant depiction of vulnerability and social shame associated with taking a short, inept man as a dance partner.

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